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Biographical entry Gunn, Alastair (1937 - 2010)

MB BS Durham 1961; DRCOG; FRCS 1967.

30 August 1937
24 December 2010
Colorectal surgeon and General surgeon


Alastair Gunn was a much-loved and respected consultant general surgeon at Ashington Hospital, Northumberland, and later at its replacement, Wansbeck General Hospital. He had a major interest in colorectal disease and instigated and helped establish the NHS northern region's register of familial adenomatous polyposis (FAP), and published widely on this and other subjects.

Alastair was born on 30 August 1937 and was educated at Gosforth Grammar School, where he was the school's rugby captain and played for the county. He studied medicine at Durham University Medical School in Newcastle, where he was captain of the cricket team. After qualifying in 1961, he was selected to do two house appointments at the Royal Victoria Infirmary in Newcastle. The first was with the senior surgeon Angus Hedley Whyte, a wonderful character with a DSO medal and the rank of brigadier during the Second World War. By contrast, his next appointment was as house physician to the professor of paediatrics, Donald Court. Unusually, he then did a third house job in obstetrics with Linton Snaith at the Newcastle General Hospital and gained his diploma of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists.

After becoming a demonstrator in anatomy in Edinburgh, he passed the primary fellowship, and started surgical training posts at the Manchester Royal Infirmary, gaining his FRCS in 1967. Later he worked with George Oliver Jelly at Ancoats Hospital and then had two attachments to St Mark's Hospital in London, firstly as a research fellow and then as a senior registrar in 1973 to Sir Alan Parks, Peter Hawley and Sir Hugh Lockhart-Mummery. It was during his time there that he developed his particular interest in familial adenomatous polyposis and its associated pathologies, including colon cancer. He completed higher training as a senior registrar at the Manchester Royal Infirmary with W Nicholson and T Heslop at Salford.

In 1974 he was appointed as a consultant surgeon at Ashington, later moving to the new Wansbeck Hospital when it opened in 1993. He published extensively on the surgical pathology of the parotid glands and on an eclectic range of other subjects, including tetanus after cholecystectomy and exploration of the common bile duct and acalculus gall bladder disease. Later in his career he published mainly on FAP.

He realised that there were many families with FAP who were not known to the national register at St Mark's in London. In the 1980s he collaborated with Sir John Burn, then the newly appointed professor of genetics at the University of Newcastle, to set up a northern region registry of families with FAP and its sequelae. Over 70 families were identified and their care was enhanced as the genetic breakthroughs allowed more accurate targeting of care. Their paper in the British Medical Journal demonstrating the predictive power of congenital hypertrophy of the retinal epithelium, as just one extra-colonic feature of the syndrome, led to the integration of this sign into the teaching of all opticians ('Congenital hypertrophy of retinal pigment epithelium: a sign of familial adenomatous polyposis.' BMJ. 1989 Feb 11;298[6670]:353-4).

Alastair continued to be an active research member of the cancer genetics group and encouraged a string of younger colleagues to train with the regional genetics team. Together they launched the first of the colorectal adenoma prevention programmes, testing chemoprevention in hereditary cancer. One of Alastair's families supplied the DNA samples that were pivotal in the discovery of the mismatch repair genes as the underlying cause of hereditary nonpolyposis colon cancer or Lynch syndrome. The family were the first in the world to benefit from genetic predictive testing.

Alastair was held in the highest regard by colleagues regionally and nationally. Although the onset of Parkinson's disease cut short his surgical career in his fifties, he remained active, organising the highly successful Northern Region Colorectal Cancer Audit Group (NorCCAG), a region-wide audit group. He was their chairman. They helped to coordinate enhanced colorectal cancer care across the region and produced valuable papers to improve care more widely.

His colleague and successor, Mike Bradburn, describes him as a 'brilliant chap' and the kindest man he has ever met. He worked tirelessly both at the hospital and on several committees dealing with NorCCAG. He was also a council member of the Association of Surgeons of Great Britain and Ireland and also of the Association of Coloproctology of Great Britain and Ireland, and many other organisations involved in FAP.

Although adored by his staff, he could be on occasions irascible, particularly with those who could not keep up with his intelligence and rapid change of thought. He expected and got intellectual vigour from his staff. His irascibility appears to have endeared him even more to them.

As a senior house officer at Manchester Royal Infirmary, he met Gillian Linton, who was the senior of two nurses looking after a ward at night. Her father was a GP in Manchester. They courted, wed in 1966 in Manchester and had three children. In 1989 they bought a farm house with outbuildings on the outskirts of Morpeth and converted them into four houses. Alastair had a long and happy retirement with his wife and family. Apart from NorCCAG, their interests were gardening, golf, world travel and Oxfam.

Alastair Gunn died on 24 December 2010, aged 73. He was a shining example of the way in which a district general hospital surgeon with a specialty interest could, by diligence, hard work and drive, make major scientific breakthroughs and achieve national recognition, assisted throughout by the supportive team he had built up and by his loving family.

Peter Craig

Sources used to compile this entry: [Sir John Burn].

The Royal College of Surgeons of England